Religious abuse, also known as spiritual abuse is abuse that people may suffer under the guise of practicing religion. It often manifests as harassment or humiliation, potentially resulting in psychological and/or physical trauma. It may also involve using religion for secular, selfish and/or ideological means, usually to benefit one entity or person’s gain.
The term spiritual abuse was first established in the late 20th century, mainly used to refer to the abuse and misuse authority practiced by church leaders of the time. While it is used to refer to the aforementioned, it’s also used in contexts where ‘people are subject to a psychological disposition that’s more or less known as religious enslavement.’
Spiritual abuse in modern contexts
When most people refer to this type of abuse, they’re referring to psychological abuse that occurs when someone in an authoritative position takes advantage of their position to teach and equip people with God’s teachings for that of their own. A common trait of these individuals involves placing themselves above God as a spiritual figure to essentially control or manipulate their followers for seemingly spiritual purposes.
According to many resources, modern spiritual abuse manifests into several characteristics that are easily divided into several categories:
Authority and power.
People who abuse their spiritual authority end up misusing and/or distorting the concept of what’s known as spiritual authority. This commonly happens when spiritual leaders place themselves in a position of power that lacks the distinct ‘dynamics of open accountability and right for others to question or challenge their decisions.’ This is mainly characterized by leaders who subjugate their followers into ‘loyally submitting to their instruction without any right to dissent.’
Groups of people who are manipulated and/or controlled into following a single entity or leader are usually coerced into following said leaders through the use of fear, guilt and threats. This essentially makes those same groups fall under unquestionable obedience that comprises the group conformity found in subjugated groups.
Some groups are even subject to ‘tests of loyalty’ where the leaders force members to demonstrate their loyalty in front of the group. The true Biblical leader-disciple relationship, in this context, essentially gets perverted into a hierarchy where the leader’s own decisions control and prevent disciples form making their own choices in both spiritual and even life-related matters.
Persecution and elitism
Many abusive spiritual groups generally evolve into having a strong tendency to become separated from other religious bodies and/or institutions.
By presenting themselves as ‘unique,’ they actually develop into having a hyper-conformist culture without the internal correction and reflection traits that are found in healthier groups of worship. They also commonly reject outside evaluation and/or criticism, citing them as outside threats of ‘evil individuals’ who want to thwart their place of worship.
Experience and lifestyle.
Many spiritual groups that take on abusive traits end up fostering inflexible behaviors, more or less forcing followers to conform to the group’s stringent standards. They essentially force the followers into constantly conforming to the group’s ideals and social behaviors regardless of their personal circumstances.
Discipline and suppression.
Many abusive spiritual groups are known to suppress any internal challenges and/or questionable behavior made by followers to leaders. They might use ‘acts of discipline’ that are known to cause physical and emotional consequences to their followers; such acts might include public humiliation, physical violence and/or deprivation.
The mark of abuse
People who undergo abuse from church leaders or entire ministries end up suffering long standing consequences that continually affects their lives. Although some people remain conservative about sharing their experiences it’s a phenomenon that affects more people who attend places of religion than most expect.
Are there ways for people to pull out of a spiritually abusive environment? There are many ways for a person to remove themselves from abusive places of worship. It mainly starts with understanding what might comprise of an abusive place of worship. It might involve the leaders themselves, the culture that they foster and promote or the place where the ministry practices.
Abuse can force people to harbor feelings of guilt, worthlessness and hopelessness. That notion is the reason why people who feel that their place of worship promotes those aforementioned traits should find a way to get away from such a negative environment.
Nowadays, many people are spreading the word about spiritual abuse by providing many resources to help people find healthier ways to worship.